I recently watched 2 classic movie’s… one that I had never seen before, A Gentleman’s Agreement and one of my all time favourites, Do The Right Thing. Both deal with the subject of racism, but in certainly different ways. They were both ground breaking and hard hitting films which deals with issues surrounding the practice and effects of discrimination and prejudice, and what is striking is that they were made 42 years apart.
A Gentleman’s Agreement was made in 1947 and directed by Elia Kazan. It’s the story of a writer at a “progressive” New York based magazine who decides to pass himself off as Jewish, so as to do an article on anti-Semitism in America. He experiences not only the blatant effects of racism, such as being denied jobs and access to public accommodations, as well as his son being verbally attacked, but he comes to discovers the more subtle forms of racism such as the telling of jokes and the discomfort of his presence in certain social circles. The film also explores the issues of self-hate behaviours and attitudes to how supposedly ”good” people can and do contribute to the perpetuation of racism in small ways in their everyday lives.
The title of the film is to signify the “gentleman’s agreement”, which his fiancée informs him is “understood” among home owners in her upscale neighbourhood, that they won’t sell to Jews. I must say I was surprised that such a film was made in 1947, which tackled such complex issues in such a real way. It went on to win numerous awards including 3 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress.
I consider Do The Right Thing a masterpiece. From the opening dance sequence to Public Enemy’s protest anthem “Fight the Power” by Rosie Perez during the opening credits… to the trash can through the window… to the last scene where Mookie get’s paid by Sal, this film takes one on an emotional and intellectual roller coaster. The multitude of characters with distinct personalities and motivations, “colours” the dynamics of this film in such a way I have never seen repeated.
I hadn’t watched this film in years but I am still blown away by the way Spike Lee delves into the issues of blatant and subtle effects of racism; the valuing of white property over the lives of the Black community in general and the life of a Black man in particular; economic self reliance; self-hate and self-respect; personal and community responsibility; the reasoning and consequence of protest; family loyalties and cross cultural allegiances; the significance of the polar messages of Malcolm and Martin which permeate through the film; etc…. I could go on and on. This is the type of movie where you can get something different (and more) out of it, every time you watch it. Released in 1989, it also won a number of awards but garnered only 2 Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.
Both films are very different in their approach and style in how they deal with a similar topic with complex issues. Both are worth seeing or seeing again.